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Martha Stewart, Blissed Out on CBD, Is Doing Just Fine

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“Have you tasted them yet?” Martha Stewart asked. She was standing in her kitchen in Bedford, N.Y., speaking over Zoom about her new line of CBD pâte de fruit, the pronunciation of which she sounded out as if speaking to a child.

‘Pat,’ like, piece,” she said, “‘doo-free’ — of fruit.” It was around 10 in the morning, and no, I had not tried one.

Eyeing the assortment in front of me, I picked a saffron-colored piece the size of a sugar cube and bit it in half.

“Pop it in,” she said. “Don’t bite it. Pop it in.”

It tasted sweet, squishy and grainy, indistinguishable from those granulated sugar-covered confections that fancy French restaurants dole out at the end of a meal.

“Am I supposed to take just one, or …?” I asked.

“It depends on who you are,” Ms. Stewart said, shrugging. “I pop 20 of them and just feel OK, but some of my friends do two and feel high, I don’t know why. It’s not high like a marijuana high. It’s a CBD high, like, relaxed.” (Cannabidiol, or CBD, is a hemp-derived compound that shouldn’t get you high, but if you mix it with more potent stuff, good luck.)

She reached for an indigo cube, one of four gummies she would consume in the course of an hourlong interview. “You don’t think that you’re eating anything but pâte de fruit,” she said. “I’m having a black raspberry right now.”

In the world of the 79-year-old goddess of domesticity, cannabis, in its myriad forms, is a societal good. Her friend Snoop Dogg introduced her to its palliative effects at Comedy Central’s 2015 “Roast of Justin Bieber.”

“We sat next to each other for seven hours,” Ms. Stewart said. “Snoop must have smoked 10 giant fat blunts, and I inhaled all that smoke. I felt really good.” She paused, searching for a more eloquent description of that feeling; it came from a male voice off-camera belonging to Ryan McCallister, her gardener and, since March, her “cinematographer emeritus” (i.e., her Zoom lighting guy).

“A contact high, that’s what they call it,” she said. “I had to fly that night, my family was in Saint Barths for Christmas vacation. I don’t remember going on the plane. I don’t remember doing anything. I didn’t remember my performance on the roast, but it was very successful.” (“Five billion impressions,” she said on a podcast last year. “Where else can you get five billion impressions?”)

ImageMs. Stewart and Snoop Dogg at Comedy Central’s 2015 “Roast of Justin Bieber.”
Credit…Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Her relationship with controlled substances was not always so. In the 1970s, she smoked a joint and went to a movie theater in Westport, Conn., with her Andrew Stewart, then her husband. “I tried to walk down the aisle,” she recalled. “I thought I would never get to the end of it. I never smoked again.”

What was the movie? “I have no idea what it was, or what it was supposed to be,” she said. “I just passed out in my seat.” She laughed and added: “My husband was probably angry.” (They divorced in 1990.)

For Ms. Stewart, making the cannabis products, which she produced with the Canadian company Canopy Growth, and partaking in them is about keeping up with the times.

“I’m very interested in what is new and what is happening,” she said. “Like, I have an electric car. I have a Tesla. I adopted the computer before most of my friends — in 1982, I bought my first IBM. I’m an early adopter of a lot of things. That keeps you very on your toes, it keeps you extremely avant-garde, it keeps you current. I want to be current.”

“I have absolutely zero complaints about quarantine,” Ms. Stewart said. In March, she stopped commuting from Bedford to Manhattan, where she was designing a new office for her approximately 150 employees. (The Martha Stewart brand was acquired by Marquee Brands for a reported $215 million in 2019.)

She hunkered down on her 153-acre farm with an initial crew of three: Mr. McCallister, her housekeeper and her driver. She set up a temperature checkpoint and distributed face masks.

She wakes up, as she always has, around 4 a.m., beside her calico Persian cat, Empress Tang. (“I’m sleeping with an empress,” she said.) In bed, she reads three newspapers, does the New York Times crossword puzzle, “and the mini crossword puzzle and sometimes that stupid Vertex.”

Then she showers, gets dressed and goes to the gym, where she attempts to replicate aerobic and resistance routines that she used to do with a trainer. By 7 a.m., when her crew arrives — it numbers around a dozen, these days — she’s written a to-do memo for the farmer, had a cappuccino and a green juice, and started her workday.

Credit…Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

That could mean brainstorming ideas for her new HGTV show, promoting her QVC clothing line or writing the foreword for a friend’s coming book. “I’ve been working pretty much every day,” she said. “I really haven’t had a vacation yet. I’m looking forward to a vacation.” (Her next “real vacation” at the urging of her 8-year-old grandson, Truman, will be to Antarctica, the only continent he has not yet visited.)

She also creates content for the Martha Stewart Blog; her daily entries “show you how to do something,” she said, “like how to wash your cat, or how to take care of your canaries.”

“Every morning, I play them a YouTube singing tutorial,” she said. “They have their own master class on how to sing.”

She does no more than three Zoom calls per day. “It requires sitting for an hour in the same place, and I don’t like that very much,” she said. “I get antsy.” Between Zooms, she might go for a swim, or ride her electric bike, or ride one of her Friesian horses, or cut hay — the farm has cut more than 1,000 bales of hay since March — or wander around and greet her many other farm animals.

“We have our chickens and peacocks and homing pigeons and geese and donkeys and what else do we have? That’s what we know about,” she said.

“I’m lucky,” she added. “I know how lucky I am. I, daily, think about everybody who doesn’t have all these amenities.”

One staff member is charged with calling Ms. Stewart 15 minutes before a Zoom meeting, “because sometimes I’m in the woods someplace and I have to rush back.” She has two computers set up for Zooms and chooses one “depending on where the light is nice. I don’t want to look terrible. I always try to have full light on my face, if possible, and you have to keep up your face, too. You have to look nice. That’s hard during Covid.”

Let us not forget that Ms. Stewart was locked down in far less plush confines in 2004 and 2005, when she spent five months at Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia after felony convictions of conspiracy, obstruction of justice and lying to investigators about why she sold 4,000 shares of ImClone stock. (The day after the sale, ImClone’s stock plummeted, leading to accusations of insider trading.)

That makes, say, cutting your own hair, as she has done in the pandemic, not such a big deal. (She did see her colorist before filming a week’s worth of “Chopped” episodes in August.)

“I haven’t been to the dermatologist, but my skin looks really good, and I think that has to do with CBD,” she said.

When dinnertime rolls around, “you either want to kill yourself because nobody’s there,” she said, “or, you know, you have somebody.” If she has company, she may indulge in a Martha-rita — a fresh fruit margarita whose name she coined in May.

“I have a rule that I do not drink alone,” Ms. Stewart said. “I don’t think I’ve ever poured a drink for myself alone in my house. I’m not like my friends who could have a glass of wine and feel nice about it, by themselves.” Her diet consists of “very little meat, lots of fish and lots of vegetables.” “I’ve lost a lot of weight during this time,” she said.

Generally, she wears gym tights and her own QVC clothing around the house. (“I’m amazed by the longevity,” she said.) Recently, for a rare, socially distanced, dinner out at a restaurant, she wore a long Eres gown.

“It’s actually a beach cover-up,” she said, “but it looks like a dress — very long and flowing, very beautiful. And some man said, ‘My gosh, I had no idea you looked so good.’” She giggled girlishly as she recounted the compliment. “I just felt so good when that happened.”

His comment echoes many of the thousands on an Instagram selfie Ms. Stewart posted from her East Hampton pool in July. The photograph inspired comparisons to Slim Aarons, that chronicler of wealthy, WASP-y poolside splendor; a pastiche of a post from Chelsea Handler; a plea from Ms. Stewart to Ms. Handler to not emulate her because she’s “too young” and trying too hard; and a not-insignificant number of think-pieces.

All Ms. Stewart has to say about it now is that she regrets not taking a picture when she catered a poolside lunch for Mr. Aarons many decades ago. “I’m going to go through my files and see why the heck I didn’t get a picture of Slim Aarons and myself,” she said. “But, yeah, I’ve had a lot of fun with social media this summer.”

Occasionally, she responds to critics, like a follower who called her tone-deaf for posting a photo of a lobster dinner she had while visiting her home in Seal Harbor, Maine. “We do not waste,” she wrote, in part. “We compost. We work. We give generously to many organizations. We care about the pandemic and observe healthy living and social distancing etc and we wear masks we are good people.”

“They’re $3 a pound up in Maine,” she said, of the lobsters. “Help the lobster farmers! Restaurants are closed, who’s buying the lobsters? You’d better buy some lobsters.”

On the subject of civic duty, asked whether she planned to publicly support a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Stewart equivocated.

“You know, I have a magazine,” she said. “My personal conundrum is, my friends know who I am and what I stand for, but in terms of being the owner of the magazine” — as well as a number of consumer brands and media franchises — “how do you take sides when 50 percent of your readers might be on one side, and 50 percent on the other? It’s difficult. That’s my answer to that.”

Ms. Stewart knows well her ability to sway public opinion and move product. She described the target demographic for her CBD line as “pretty much everybody. All my friends, every age, want them, including my daughter” — Alexis, 54 — “who doesn’t even eat sugar.” That she can render most anything aspirational is among her most enduring value propositions.

“Can we sell a lot of stuff because Martha put her name on it? That’s not necessarily the win,” said David Klein, the C.E.O. of Canopy Growth. “The win is to build that authentic connection with the consumer base.” Still, there’s an alchemy to Ms. Stewart’s touch. She swirls it all together — her legacy, her lifestyle, our want to attain her level of success — and offers it up as a panacea to slurp down.

“The thing that really helps me are the oil drops that I have at night, before bed,” she said. “I just put a couple droppers of the blood orange or Meyer lemon under my tongue. Have you tried the blood orange oil? Try the blood orange oil. Not a drop, half a dropper — it’s nothing. Doesn’t it taste good?”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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